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Give it a Rest. Downtime and Productivity


It has become a truism that many of us are too busy.

Are we too busy? Too distracted? Have we lost something important we once had?

Reading What Happened To Downtime? The Extinction Of Deep Thinking And Sacred Space on Fast Company reminded me of this important question.

In this case the answer (unlike the persistent question about balance) is yes. We are losing something. The loss is measurable, as are the impacts.

Especially as managers and leaders we need time to think. And not just any time. Time where we are free for an uninterrupted period of time to think without a particular goal or objective.

Reflections on Thinking Time

  • Interruptions cost. There is a growing body of evidence that shows that every time we are interrupted in a task, the brain requires 10 to 20 times the length of the interruption to recover. So when someone bugs you for “just a minute” they are actually costing you at least 10 minutes of productive time. And that multiplier gets larger as we get older.
  • The more you direct your brain, the less real problem solving it can do. The best way to approach a complex problem is to spend a significant amount of time studying it and then walking away. When you let go of a problem, it doesn't go out of your mind at all; it sinks deeper. Now the rest of the brain can do its job without you micromanaging it. Sleep on it, go for a run, take a long shower, meditate, do something where your mind can wander. There is a famous story of August Kekulé and his discovery of structure of the benzene molecule. After enormous amounts of research and thought, the solution occurred to Kekulé as he was daydreaming. The image of a snake with its tail in its mouth passed through Kekulé’s mind and he realized in that moment that the solution he had been seeking was a ring structure. Kekulé was not in his lab when this solution occurred to him, he was riding a horse-drawn bus.
  • You really can't be on all the time. Not shouldn't, can't. There is a lot of evidence that shows that the brain, especially in its executive functioning (that’s the decision-making stuff that goes on largely at the front of the brain), has limited resources. The longer you hammer away at a problem, the more you reduce your brain's capacity to solve any problem at all. That is not to say that extended periods of focused thinking is not productive. Given enough rest (including mental rest, or as we like to call it ‘spacing out’) we can work at a problem for quite a long time. But if you try to do that for one problem after another, making tough decisions all day long, the quality of those decisions will deteriorate. Throw in fatigue and interruptions, and you can see where this is going.

Find Space to Think

As a leader or a manager, you owe it to your organization and your team to make the best decisions you can. How do you do that? Here are six tips:

  1. Set aside time each day to think. Put it right in your calendar. This is not a ‘left over’ activity to cram in spaces after other things are done. Even 20 minutes a day can make a difference. Go for a walk. Close the door to your office. Head to a local coffee shop. Put your work down, and get out of your normal work space.
  2. Turn off digital distractions. You can’t always stop people from interrupting you. But email inbox bells, smartphone bleeps, social media alerts… all of those can be turned off.
  3. Sleep. Get as close to eight hours as you can. Don't be afraid to nap when the opportunity presents itself.
  4. Drive in silence. I love listening to the CBC or to audio books on my longer drives to meet with clients. But I also enjoy driving in silence. Some of my best thinking time happens in the car when nothing can distract me.
  5. Walk or run. Centuries of common practice, especially in monastic traditions, have taught the value of walking meditation or walking prayer. There is something about the rhythm, the passing landscape, the absence of interruptions, that engenders that deep, undirected and creative thinking like nothing else. Of the three places I think the best: shower, car, and walks or runs, it is the latter that are the best. My only challenge sometimes, is to retain a good idea until I get home!
  6. Sometimes technology helps.While one of the biggest culprits in the creation of “thought, interrupted” is digital technology, I sometimes find it a great ally. I use the voice recorder on my phone a lot. I have written before that my favourite tool to use in recording ideas and conversations is my Moleskine notebook.  But when you are stopped at a stoplight or walking through the city, you can’t always take out your notebook and write down an idea. I push a button, record my idea, and let it go. Not only does this help me capture the ideas that might otherwise evaporate, it allows my mind to keep wandering because I am not stressing about forgetting the thought I just had.
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